Combinatorial Media as Self-Expression

Loose notes from SXSW 2007 panel: Combinatorial Media as Self-Expression

Sean Uberoi Kelly, eTonal
Lili Cheng, Microsoft Research
Alice Marwick, New York University
Rick Webb, Archenemy

Discussion about the zillion ways multiple media are being mashed up and re-presented, or being presented in formats that make it super-easy for consumers to remix. Implications for creativity, copyright, fun.


“The art of creating new content from pre-existing media coming from more than one medium: site and sound, music and commentary, words and pictures. Creating something new from disparate sources…”

Montage of sites, videos — mashups and collages, crazy interactive stuff. Sense of play.

First example of a mass-produced interactive toy: 1810 cut-out paper doll set – Little Fanny. Now available as an interactive web site. World of Warcraft and other RPGs do much the same thing – customize, accessorize, splice bits together.

Is silly-ness / humor intrinsic to combinatorial media? There’s very little of it that’s serious. What about Yahoo! Pipes? That’s not silly…

Microsoft Boku – Work started on this after Vista was finished. Kids want to create video games, but it’s too hard. Boku makes it easy – fit together modules with “verbs” (if you see green fruit kick it, if you see red fruit eat it). Aimed at 10 and under, works on X-Box. More advanced users can dig in deeper and take the game core apart and recombine it. Kids who can’t type are going to have trouble programming. For example Logo (the language used by the interactive Legos stuff) – Boku addresses this – could be a precursor to programming concepts for children.

QuickComic: Create your own comics – assemble characters via drag/drop, add captions, etc. Most submitted are horrible / not funny, but the good ones rise to the top.

All of these tools lower the barrier to entry, but is there such a thing as too low?

Who’s doing what? Assume that everyone can read a web site: 100%. Creating: 57% have created content online (where “creating” is defined as being as little as leaving a comment on a web site – Pew Internet). American teenagers are among the most involved in the world. Producing content: Less than 10% (90% consume other people’s content). Developing: 2%.

The Video Masher: Won a technical interface award for ease of manipulating / mashing video online. Too easy to cobble content together – results in massive pile of garbage, most videos don’t make any sense at all. The equivalent of a non-musician noodling around on a keyboard. Is there any value here? Note: You can only use the source videos they provide, not your own. Thus: Very limited. The UI is nice though.

Also: AnyFilms: doesn’t use the timeline metaphor, but drag/drop grid. Do these sorts of sites equal or lead to creation/creativity? They’re like a very low form of creativity, just dragging squares around. No real plot creation / thinking / writing necessary. Just a form of play. And the resulting videos aren’t really good at all. But as pure play, who is to judge? (These are panelists comments, as well as my own).

Yahoo! Pipes: Fascinating, but much too difficult for average user to use.

Combinatorial Media doesn’t have to be entertainment oriented.

Participatory culture vs. combinatorial media. These are very different things.

Usually, combining is a substitute for creating, not a form of creation. Though it depends on what level of combination is allowed.

“Tools and processes that let people easily and quickly combine, repurpose, remix and share raw content streams for identity expression, subversion, political purposes and mostly for fun.”

Remember the GMC Yukon ad and how people used it to create anti-SUV video statements.

Sense of lawlessness on MySpace is part of what made it so successful. Kids don’t hang out in fancy clubs, they hang out in garages full of stuff. So everything on MySpace has a garage-y feel to it.

Swivel: Lets you take information from lots of data sources and mash them up into custom charts by aggregating tons of RSS feeds and external data sets (must check this out). For example you can create a chart correlating Wine and Violent Crime. You can “bling” charts by putting custom photos behind the grids.

Mix tapes: Was a great art form. What is the correlation online? You can create public playlists on iTunes. But you’re not making the bitchen covers.

What about the manual/photocopier zine scene (that’s all moved online). Huge amount of copying, cutting, assembling. How does this compare to creating your own web site?

Combinatorial media doesn’t really take off until interfaces let people work with their own content.

iSpot guy: “Giving people pre-fab chunks ready for mashing” makes it much more likely that people will do something with it. Less control = more creativity.

Copyright discussion: Fair use has been chipped away at. Conflict between fair use and the DMCA. The majority of the combinatorial sites/projects are in copyright gray area, and the younger user base is barely aware of copyright at all.

Mary Hodder: Quotes 4-year study about filmmakers who work for PBS. Connected with Film Arts Foundation. When judges make decisions about Fair Use, they look for social norms. If there is documentation for pre-existing examples, it helps the cause. The piece focused on film and audio, but principles apply to any Fair Use situation.

Henry Jenkins: We need to start advocating for organizations that are working in free culture areas.

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